Attack on Colleges' Aid to Minorities Widens
By GREG WINTER
New York Times
March 30, 2003
As the Supreme Court prepares itself to tackle affirmative action in university admissions this week, a new offensive is well under way against scholarships and summer programs intended to ease minority students into college life.
The Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute, two groups that oppose affirmative action, have threatened to file federal complaints against about 30 universities, contending that their reliance on race to determine eligibility for certain awards and academic enrichment programs violates civil rights law. The groups are also backing the case against the University of Michigan's admissions policies before the Supreme Court.
In the weeks since the letters have gone out, at least five universities have agreed to open their programs to white students or possibly cancel them. They are the University of Virginia, Iowa State University, the University of Delaware, Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first to be challenged by the two groups and the only one under review by the Department of Education.
Another university put on notice, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, unexpectedly eliminated virtually all its affirmative action policies this month under separate pressure from the state attorney general's office, but, after an outcry from students, faculty members and administrators that was swift and vociferous, its board has agreed to reconsider.
The challenge to minority scholarships and summer programs, often intended to encourage students who might otherwise not go to college, represents the widening of a separate but no less ideologically charged front in the fight over affirmative action.
Unlike Michigan's admissions policy, which considers race as one of many factors in reviewing applicants, many scholarships and enrichment programs serve minorities exclusively, often helping only a handful of students.
Though the value of such programs is not in dispute, their racial exclusivity creates what the two anti-affirmative action groups call "ill feelings, racial polarization and a general fraying of the fabric that holds our multiracial society together."
Edward Blum, legal director of the American Civil Rights Institute, said: "We're not out to kill these programs. What we're out to do is expand them to everyone." The institute's chairman, Ward Connerly, led the 1996 ballot initiative to ban affirmative action in California's government-sponsored programs.
Some colleges contend that their programs are not only consistent with federal law but essential to creating campuses in which minorities are not grossly underrepresented.
As federal figures show, more than 28 percent of whites over the age of 25 have completed at least four years of college, while fewer than 17 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Latinos have. Without taking steps to rectify that imbalance, the universities argue, parity may never come.
"This a core principle for us," said Marvin Krislov, general counsel for the University of Michigan.
Such programs often explicitly bar white students, making them "extremely difficult to defend" in court, the Department of Education says.
"It's unfortunate that the universities are caving in like this instead of defending what they believe in," said Angelo N. Ancheta, legal director for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard. "It would be one thing if the Supreme Court came out with a ruling that said `Your policy is unconstitutional.' But until that happens, why would you abandon it?"
The answer is simple, the anti-affirmative-action groups say: They have no intention of waiting to see what light, if any, the Supreme Court's ruling on admissions will shed on these auxiliary programs. Their complaints will be filed in weeks, not months.
"It was not necessary to take the legal risk we were taking," Paul Tanaka, university counsel at Iowa State, said, explaining why his school had opened a summer internship program to white students. "We have to face the fact that the direction of the courts has been very much against the consideration of race at all."